Keep The Change
(Soapbox Column #18)
Bass Player Magazine
Published January, 2003
This will be my last column for Bass Player in this format. It shows generosity to call what I've been doing here a "format," but whatever it's been, it's over after this. I thought long and hard about exactly how to say that, but settled for the direct approach. Life's too short to be cute all the time. A quick but heartfelt "thank you" is due to those who had the nerve to publish these humble (and frequently off-topic) ramblings. A special measure of gratitude goes out to you, the reader, for not skipping this part of the magazine to more quickly reach the "You Too Can Have Perfect Pitch!" advertisement. You know what I mean.
The occasion gives pertinence to a question I was once asked: What would you write about if you only had one column left?
It's easier to project the question than answer it. What would you do if the next gig you played was your last? Would you play the same parts, on the same bass, through the same gear, wearing that same "#1" stage outfit you keep hanging in that special place in the closet? Wouldn't you at least want to change the kind of strings you use on your bass? You know, just get crazy and raise the roof with the medium-light gauge?
If your answer is anything but "yeah, why not?" then this column is for you.
* * * * *
I was fortunate enough to have received some very interesting - usually supportive, sometimes hostile - e-mail responses to the column over the past three years. To my usual discomfort, the most commonly question asked was this: "How can I get better as a player, and how I can I progress in my career as a bassist?" (This implies that I somehow know the answer because...well, I have no freaking idea why.) My response was always the same. I'd ignore the second half and, to the first half, I'd say, "Learn music by ear off of records, as much as possible."
I still believe that. An ear that quickly translates what you're hearing into what you think you should be playing is the greatest musical asset of all, bar none, and it's a skill that can be honed to a razor's edge. But here's my belated answer to the second question: Change something.
How many different instruments have you played in your life? I mean really played, not just fiddled around on over at your friend's place. Did a session with, did a gig with, played. For most players I'm guessing it's less than ten. The quest to find the one "perfect" bass for you might just be limiting your scope and creative possibilities. I didn't discover some key elements of how my fingers react to certain kinds of instruments, neck action, string tension, and body weight until well into my late 20's. You may have a bass you use more often than others, and that's fine. Just take a different bass to a gig you'd usually bring that main axe to. Don't ask why, don't think about it, just do it.
How about that amp of yours? You love it so much that you'd rather have it repaired for the seventh time than have to face up to the quandary of finding "your sound" on a different set of EQ controls. It's OK, I understand. You don't have to be ashamed anymore. Conquer the fear of the unknown. Borrow a friend's amp, even if it's one you just know doesn't sound good. Just so long as you haven't used it before. And when you get to the gig, set up on the opposite side of the stage, if for no other reason than to watch the other players look at you and think, "OK, what's going on here?"
Change your own basslines. Of course there are set parts to play, and as a bassist you know when you have to play them. But then there are those other moments, where you have a little space, and there's this one really cool lick that you love doing because it's just the best lick you ever thought of and there's no way any other lick could work better than this little piece of musical magic you're going to keep giving to the universe every time the bridge heads into the guitar solo on this one particular song. I believe you. Play something different anyway.
Subverting what you consider something that "works" won't always be a successful experiment. Success or failure isn't the point. If the change results in something you happen to like, now you've got two competing options, both good in their own ways. If it goes south on you, then you've learned something new, or at least gained a different perspective on why you do what you do. So what if it gets a little sloppy in the process? Creativity isn't supposed to be a mathematical theorem. Make a mess every once in a while.
Nicholas Kristof, a columnist for the New York Times, best summed up what I'm really trying to say by recently paraphrasing a famous line from the classic movie The Third Man, saying that "30 years of noisy, violent churning under the Borgias in Italy produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and the Renaissance, while 500 years of peace, quiet and harmony in Switzerland produced the cuckoo clock." To be fair, I've got nothing against good chocolate and expensive timepieces, and I'm certainly not advocating the Machiavellian excesses of the Borgias (talk about off-topic; get thee to an Italian history book). But what was your last year like? Noisy Italy, or quiet Switzerland?
This isn't an easy thing to do. People generally don't change things around just for the hell of it. Routines make people feel like they're in control, a powerful incentive not to change. I'm no exception. In fact, those who know me will likely wonder what foreign spirit hijacked my brain and produced this column. I write lists and live by them. I horizontally arrange my remote controls on my desk - by order of height. I have a diagram inside my pedalboard case showing which instrument cable goes where. And, yes, I have my favorite licks in my favorite songs and I love them so dearly that it pains me to alter them by so much as a fingering.
But I try. And, luckily for me, I'm surrounded by others who inspire the kind of routine-smashing, creativity-sparking change I'm so desperately trying to describe. If you can't do it yourself, get near others who can. Inevitably they'll rub off on you, and something - good, bad, perhaps both - will happen.
No matter how you do it, just do it. Change something. Chances are you'll grow faster as a bassist, a musician...and a person.
* * * * *
You may be thinking that, in the spirit of his high-minded, oh-so-philosophical take on musical creativity, this writer voluntarily stepped down from his esteemed position as a Bass Player columnist in search of a new, more enriching literary outlet. In fact, nothing could be more untrue. Upon notifying the columnist of his decision, BP Editor Bill Leigh had to endure a lengthy, unpleasant, lawyerly harangue from said columnist about why he would do such a thing. After nearly ten minutes of bobbing and weaving, he finally blurted out his true rationale.
"I just wanted to change things up!"
Oh, well, why didn't you just say so?
Reprinted with permission from the January, 2003 issue of BASS PLAYER. For subscription information, please visit http://www.bassplayer.com.